John Fetterman was the only Democratic US Senate candidate to flip a Senate seat out of the Republican column, and the Pennsylvanian did so with relatively ease—winning by a little over 210,000 votes. That wasn’t a landslide, but it was a wider margin than in many of the nation’s most competitive—and, in several cases, still unsettled—Senate races. Fetterman’s margin was built with strong showings in the historically Democratic cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But what gave him that wide margin of victory, after an intense, expensive, and at times bitter contest with Republican Mehmet Oz, was a steadily stronger-than-expected showing in the smaller cities, towns, and rural areas of Pennsylvania.
Fetterman did not win the outstate vote, which for years has trended toward the Republicans, and which went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. But he ran better than Democratic presidential nominees Hillary Clinton, who narrowly lost Pennsylvania, and Joe Biden, who narrowly won it. And that was by design. From the start of his campaign, the hoodie-wearing former mayor of the working-class borough of Braddock, and Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor for the past four years, embraced a strategy of outreach to the places where Democrats haven’t put a lot of energy in recent decades. And it paid off. In Erie County, a historic manufacturing center in the far-northwest corner of the state that backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and that split almost evenly in the 2020 presidential race, Fetterman won 53 percent to 44 percent, a wider margin than he secured statewide. The 10,000-vote boost that the Democrat got out of Erie County was augmented by advances in rural counties, where he consistently bumped the Democratic total upward.
In what was easily the most inspired victory speech of any winner of a high-profile race on Tuesday, Fetterman opened with a reference to the strategy that took his Democratic campaign to the furthest corners, and the smallest towns, of the state.
“We launched this campaign almost two years ago, and we had our slogan. It’s on every one of those signs right now: ‘Every county. Every vote,’” the candidate told an elated crowd in Pittsburgh. Supporters chanted, “Every county! Every vote!” “That’s exactly what happened,” said Fetterman. “We jammed them up. We held the line. I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue. But we did what we needed to do, and we had that conversation across every one of those counties. And tonight that’s why I’ll be the next US senator from Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman was speaking to the voters who had just elected him as a champion of economic, social, and racial justice who beat back Republican smears and attacks that sought to turn working-class voters against him. But he was also delivering a message to Democrats nationwide, and they ought to take that message to heart. Winning elections in battleground states will always require the mobilization of the party faithful in order to run up totals in the urban centers that are vital for the party. And, in elections where issues such as abortion rights and the future of American democracy are up for grabs, the work that goes into convincing suburban swing voters to move to the Democratic column certainly matters, as Tuesday’s exit polls confirmed. But the third part of the equation involves holding the line in Republican red counties where Democratic candidates cannot afford to get wiped out.
“That conversation,” as Fetterman referred to it, often makes the difference between victory and defeat.
Some Democratic strategists get the first part of the equation right. They know the party’s candidates have to speak to rural, small-town, and smaller-city voters. But the consultants usually get the second part wrong, because they think that these conversations require Democrats to err on the side of cautious centrism—a doomed approach that neglects the reality on the ground. The fact is that people who live in the regions we’re talking about suffer from economic inequality, long-term poverty, diseases of despair, a lack of jobs, and a lack of resources. They have experienced deindustrialization. They don’t have access to health care. They have seen their schools and post offices close.
The neglected corners of America are places where immigrants are settling in growing numbers, where frustrated young people worry about the future, and where women are often far from reproductive-health clinics. In other words, there are a lot of potential voters who will respond to a bold, progressive message. But they have to hear that message.
Fetterman delivered it, with a campaign that generally took bolder stances on the issues than most Senate candidates. The Pennsylvanian took some criticism from environmentalists for refusing during this campaign to repeat his 2016 call for a temporary ban on fracking in order to tighten regulations and protect water supplies. But, for the most part, he offered up a progressive populist program that ripped into corporations and political elites with an energy that unsettled Democratic Party big donors almost as much as it excited grassroots activists.
“I’m just so proud of the race that we ran,” the Democrat declared on election night. “This campaign has always been about fighting for everyone who’s ever been knocked down that ever got back up. This race is for the future of every community all across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person that ever felt left behind, for every job that has been lost, for every factory that was ever closed, for every person that works hard but never got ahead. I’m proud of what we ran on: Protecting a woman’s right to choose, raising the minimum wage, fighting for the union way of life, health care as a fundamental human right—it saved my life and it should always be there for you when you ever should need it—standing up to corporate greed, making more things right here in America and right here in Pennsylvania, and standing up for our democracy.”
That’s a progressive agenda that some members of the Democratic consultant class often urge candidates to downplay in statewide races. But it was the right agenda for the campaign Fetterman envisioned, with its emphasis on reaching out to voters based on values and the loyalty that can build up between an outsider candidate and voters who might otherwise give up on politics. That loyalty served Fetterman well. When Republicans attacked him as an out-of-touch liberal who was soft on crime, voters were willing to listen to what the Democrat—a longtime advocate for the legalization of marijuana and for sensible criminal justice reforms—was actually saying. When Dr.(!) Oz and his supporters sought to exploit concerns about Fetterman’s health after the lieutenant governor suffered a stroke in the spring, voters responded with sympathy and support for a candidate who bravely returned to the campaign trail even as he was recovering.
Candidates who connect with voters in every corner of a state, and who maintain that connection over time, can insulate themselves against the attack ads and the smear campaigns that are so much a part of contemporary politics. They can overcome divisions with a message that “no community deserves to be left behind, no community deserves to be abandoned, and every place matters.”
That’s what Fetterman explained on an election night when he was able to declare, “We bet on the people of Pennsylvania, and you didn’t let us down.”